Posts Tagged ‘Communion’

Drawing Near to Pascha

April 12, 2011

We live in a “linear” world. This is to say that we experience time and events in a sequential manner. “B” does not happen before “A”. It would be, perhaps, just as accurate to say that we live on a “flat earth.” Though we may know that the world is round, we live like it is flat. Thus we say, “The Sun rises,” rather than, “the Earth rotates,” etc. “Things fall,” rather than “things are attracted by gravity.” Physics and reality (as we live it) are often two very different things. All of this is to say that even on the most mundane level, we speak about things in an inaccurate manner – and this speach largely colors our thought, even though we “know better.”

Something of the same can be said about our perception of  the feasts of the Church – our perception of time and the reality of the Kingdom are not at all the same thing. The tendency within our lives is to reduce the feasts of the Church to mere celebrations – days we decide are special and that we treat in a special way. Thus, nothing about the day is, in fact, different. “Reality” is only found in the make-believe of the liturgical game we all play.

Of course, this is a complete contradiction of the Church’s self-understanding and its understanding of the relationship between God and the Liturgy. It is true that the calendar may be somewhat relative (despite the Orthodox propensity for arguing among themselves about the calendar). However, that which is celebrated is not relative, nor is it only in “our minds.”

The celebration of Pascha, for example, is not a mere annual remembrance of the events of that day (on which Jesus rose from the dead) – it is, instead, by the grace and condescension of God, a true participation in the event itself. This is not because the time itself is special or even significant – nor is it because we ourselves are thinking in special ways. The liturgical and spiritual reality of holy events are a gift from God – a condescension to us – not unlike the condescension of His incarnation. God gives Himself to us in our worship of Him.

This is the very heart of worship. As Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John’s in Essex notes: “The heart of worship is an exchange.” The exchange that takes place in our worship of God is that we offer ourselves and all that we have (including our sin) and receive in return the very Life of God. “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” This mutual participation in the life of God and man is also the very content of our salvation. God becomes what we are, that we might become what He is.

In our liturgical life, this reality is also expressed in the exchange of time. We offer to God what we have (the time we give in our worship) and this time is exchanged: God gives us the eternity of His Pascha. Thus we do not merely remember Pascha, we participate in Pascha.  Christ “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life,” and in our liturgy He tramples our death by His death and grants us lives in the hopelessness of the tombs we have created for ourselves.

I have stood at the historical places of Holy Week: I have touched the rock of Golgotha and knelt and prayed; I have knelt within the tomb of the risen Christ as a priest beside me prepared the bread for the Eucharist; I have kissed the rock upon which His lifeless body was laid and prepared for its burial. These and many other things were the content of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in which I participated several years back.

Those places, locked within the geography of the earth, had their share in the events which took place within and upon them. Their veneration was worthy and deeply moving. But none of them can compare to the reality of the exchange and the Pascha that occurs within the worship of the Divine Liturgy.

It is a misunderstanding of place and time that leads us to value the linear – the place and time – over the transcendant – which makes this place and time to be united with that place and time – and makes us to be united with Him.

Thus every Christian makes pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to the tomb of the Crucified and Risen Christ as he approaches the Holy Mysteries in faith and love. God grant us a good Holy Week and good Pascha. Let us not deny or despise the exchange that awaits us.

The Difficult Path of Giving Thanks

February 9, 2011

The mark of a soul that loves wisdom always gives thanks to God. If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations. It is not we who are injured but those who are the authors of them. – St. John Chrysostom

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My experience in writing and teaching about the life of thanksgiving has had a fairly consistent response. I find general agreement among readers when I write that we should “give thanks to God in all things,” meaning that we give thanks to God despite our circumstances – the relationship of thanksgiving is removed from the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

I have a completely different response when I write about giving God thanks for all things. The insane activity (or so it would seem) of giving God thanks for the cancer one has, or for the tragic death of a child or other loved one, is more than many people can bear.

How thankful should we be and for what should we be thankful?

St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:20 that we should be “giving thanks always for all things unto God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ,” is not ambiguous. The underlying Greek uses the construction [hyper panton] which cannot be interpreted as “in” all things. It clear means “thanks for all things.”

The quote from St. John Chrysostom given above echoes this same commandment:

If you have suffered evil, give thanks and it is changed to good. He has not sinned who suffered the evil but he who has done the evil. Give thanks even in disease, lack of possessions, or false accusations.

The scandalous nature of the commandment, to my mind, underlines its place within the Kingdom of God. Anyone can give thanks for good things, or even give thanks to God despite the bad things that surround them. But the purposeful giving of thanks for even the bad things, is repulsive. It is this very plunging into the heart of the repulsive that carries the mark of the Cross. The Cross “makes Him to be sin who knew no sin.” (2 Cor. 5:21). Where is the justice in that? There is no justice – only love. It is the same love that is “gathering together in one all things in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:10).

The life that we are called to live as Christians is the “eucharistic” life [eucharistein=to give thanks]. It is the most essential activity for humanity. In living out this calling, we fulfill the “priesthood of all believers.” That for which we cannot or will not give thanks is that which we are excluding from the Kingdom – from the possibility of redemption in Christ.

We are commanded to love our enemies (many of the fathers also teach that we should give thanks to God for our enemies).

There is no “limited atonement.” Christ is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There is no modifying clause, nothing that delimits what sins it is Christ takes away. From an Orthodox understanding, Christ’s descent into hades (at the moment of His death) is an entrance into the whole of human sin, the fullness of our emptiness.

It is the good God who loves mankind who offers Himself on our behalf, and also makes it possible for us to be united to His offering. We become creatures of the Eucharist, and are transformed from grace to grace into the image of Christ, becoming eucharistic beings. We become what we were always created to be.

The limitations of our thanks (which is quite common) is also a limitation on God’s grace, refusing for His grace to work in all the world and for it to work in the whole of our own lives.

There is no two-storey universe of thanksgiving. We give thanks always for all things – else we risk giving thanks for nothing at all. I understand that this is a hard word for many and I do not say these things lightly. I know the pain of losing a child, of murders within my family, of tormenting disease ravaging loved ones, and all the tragedy that is common to most. And yet I have seen no other way towards healing and reconciliation other than the fullness of giving thanks as taught in the Scripture.

Glory to God for all things!

You Never Pray Alone

December 4, 2010

Forgive me if this offers any offense.

There is a conception of what it means to be human, rooted in Medieval thought and refined in the furnace of modernity. This conception views each person as a “free moral agent.” Each of us is a unique individual. Our choices are our own and set our path for good or ill. Moral decisions may be submitted to varying forms of ethical tests. The choices each individual makes may effect others around him, but does not impinge on the free moral agency of others. Salvation, in this conception, is an individual matter – between each of us and God. The Church, in this conception, is a free association of free moral agents, who gather together for worship and praise and other matters of mutual benefit.

This conception of humanity runs counter to the Tradition of the Church, substituting much later definitions and understandings for the thought of those who wrote Scripture, and those who, following them faithfully, propounded the Christian faith over the subsequent centuries. (A suggestion for reading – Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.)

When this matrix of a human as an individual moral agent is used as a lens through which Scripture is read – the result is often a distortion of Scripture (which was never meant to be a book for individuals). Such a lens all too easily ignores verses that clearly teach a different conception of what it means to be human and thus distorts the role of choice and free will as well as the account of salvation.

Were this distortion confined to an abstract debate then it would simply remain a matter of debate. But since it is actually based on flawed assumptions about the very nature of our existence – it goes far beyond mistaken thought and becomes positively harmful as a basis for human living, especially human life as a Christian.

We are created in God’s image – the image of the Triune God. This is not the same thing as saying each individual is created in the image of the Triune God (pace St. Augustine). All that God creates is pronounced “good.” The first thing described as “not good” is man alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are created in the image of God – persons of  one essence – our existence is inherently a common existence. It is this reality that ultimately provides the ground for understanding our life in Christ and the path of salvation.

St. Paul offers these admonitions:

None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).

So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another (Romans 12:5)

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:26).

Within St. Paul’s statements is an understanding of what it means to be human – and particularly what it means to be persons who are members of the one body of Christ – in which individuality (as it stands alone) is the antithesis of the Christian understanding. Why should it be true that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, I should suffer as well? Does this not impinge on my freedom and reality as an individual moral agent? Of course it does – because I am not merely an individual moral agent. What each of us does effects all of us. Were it not so, Christ could not have taken upon Himself the sins of the world.

The forensic (legal) account of salvation, popular within many modern Christian circles, is easily misused, making our salvation extrinsic, a transaction offered on our behalf, but a transaction that only touches us as individual moral agents. We are forgiven as a man could be forgiven for a crime he has committed. He remains a criminal. This account of salvation is extremely well-suited to a world view in which man is seen primarily as an individual moral agent. He has been offered a forensic forgiveness. All that remains is for him to make a choice, accepting this boon with gratitude.

But such an account ignores the bulk of Christian Tradition (including large amounts of Scripture itself). Christ took the sins of the world upon Himself when He took upon Himself our human nature (at the Incarnation). He carried that burden to the Cross, into Hades, and raised it forgiven and healed in His Pascha. He remains united to us, having carried our humanity with Him in His glorious Ascension. Such an understanding of the Incarnation is consonant with the commonality of our existence.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together,” including the Head of the Body, Christ Jesus.

The truth of our existence is revealed in our life within the Church. The Church is the restoration of humanity to the truth of its existence. In the garden of Eden, human beings chose to act as individuals. Eve makes a choiceapart from Adam as Adam does apart from Eve. That rupture is perhaps more significant than the eating of the forbidden fruit itself.

The eating and drinking which are given in the life of the Church are a participation in a common life – the common life of God, given to us in Christ. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). We are also told, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). All of the sacraments of the Church (indeed the whole of everything of the Church) have this same character.

The disruption of our common humanity is the result of sin. Such a disruption can be seen in the first murder (Cain kills Abel) and is writ large in the story of the tower of Babel. Our common life has been shattered by sin – and it is not healed by becoming more fully what sin made of it. We do not find our salvation as individuals, but as members of the Body of Christ. “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). The Church reveals the truth of human existence, indeed, the Church is what salvation looks like (as troubling as that thought may be). The life of the Church is a true union, a common life in Christ.

Prayer (as well as the whole of our Christian praxis) is properly understood in the context of our common life – and not within the confines of existence imagined as single and individual. Thus Christ teaches us to pray, “Our Father….” That prayer which is understood to be the most perfect – is a common prayer – the cry of our common heart in Christ.

Nor do we pray apart from Christ. “…God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!'” (Gal. 4:6). Our prayer is the cry of Christ through the Spirit to the Father. In is in this way that we can pray, “Our Father.”

Prayer is the offering of our common life before God. Whether or not we ourselves enter into this common prayer, the prayer remains. In the Tradition we begin our prayers: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What follows is thus not our own individual existence but the voice of our common life given in Christ Jesus through the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

In the matrix of humanity conceived as individual – prayer – at best – is conversation. It obviously does not inform God of what He does not know – nor does it convince Him to do what He does not will to do. As such, prayer is reduced to the sound of our own ego.

There are times when such a sound is all that we can manage – indeed there are times when we cannot manage even a sound. Such times are all the more reason to become increasingly familiar with the ceaseless prayer of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. It is also reason to become familiar with the voice of the whole Church (in heaven and on earth) as it prays in union with Christ.

The anxieties of those who refuse to understand the communion of saints, and the prayer which ascends ceaselessly from the Church, is, I think, largely born of an individualism – the hallmark of most forms of modern Christianity. Christ alone saves us (apart from Him we can do nothing), and yet it pleases Him to share His life with us (it is our true existence). There is not a life of Christ that is not also a saving life. Salvation is part of our common life, even though it be solely the work of Christ.

Many are scandalized when they first visit and Orthodox Church and hear the prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” What they think they are hearing is Mary put in the place of Christ. In the Tradition there is no such thought. The prayer is a recognition of the one salvation in Christ of which the Mother of God is intimately a part.

The shift from individualistic thought to the understanding of life as communion is perhaps among the most difficult undertakings in the modern world. It runs counter to modern culture and asks us to enter a world that can seem quite foreign. But this strange world is nothing other than the Kingdom of God – life in Christ – communion in the life of Christ and the life of one another. May God hurry the day of our transformation!

Prayer and Communion

December 2, 2010

Having posted on the topic of prayer – I thought that reposting this earlier piece on the mystery of prayer as communion would be helpful. In particular it should be helpful for understanding the larger life of prayer – which includes our communion with the saints.

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Now it came to pass in those days that He went out to the mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God (Luke 6:12).

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when He prayed all night? Have you ever tried to pray all night? If your conception of prayer is a monologue of needs, information and requests, then your experience of prayer is either that it is very short or very repetitive.

Years ago, in my years between high school and college, I lived in a religious commune (yes, it was the early ’70’s). From time to time in our efforts to live a life based in Scripture, we “kept watch,” though we had no guidance from tradition to explain the meaning of the phrase. Our practice was first to stay awake all night. Second, we tried to pray. The monologue model made no dent in the hours of the night. We quickly learned that in order to pray all night something else had to serve as prayer. We learned to pray the Psalms. Accidentally, we had begun to practice one of the ancient forms of “keeping watch.”

Fittingly, it was one of the simplest forms of keeping watch – but the experience was instructive. We began to learn the value of simply being present to God (who is Himself everywhere present) and attentive to the words of prayer itself.

It seems to me that Christ would have had no need to hold conversation through the night with the Father. There was no information to be conveyed – no requests not already known. The need to pray in such an intense manner is simply the expression of true communion – such as exists eternally in the Godhead. For human beings, that communion is most frequently expressed as prayer. It is a need greater than food:

In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”
Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.

And:

When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

More valuable than food – such communion is greater than sleep as well. Thus Christ prayed through the night on occasion. The practice has continued in the ascetic life of the Church through the centuries.

It is prayer as communion with God that concerns me in this post. Such an understanding is not simply a description of so-called “contemplative” prayer, but is properly the understanding for all prayer. Prayer is communion, expressed in words, in songs, in a presence that sometimes transcends words. Prayer is stepping consciously into the life that has been given us in Christ – and remaining there for a period of time (unceasingly is the Scriptural goal).

Participation in the life of God (communion) is the heart of intercessory prayer.

But [Christ], because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:24-25).

Christ’s “intercession for us” should not be understood as an eternal torrent of words; intercession is Christ’s union with us who have now been united to Him and thus united to His eternal communion with the Father.

This same understanding of prayer is at the heart of the intercession of the saints. Much confusion about the intercession of the saints has been wrought by poor images of prayer. We have reduced prayer to talk and intercession to talk to God about someone else. It is in this imagery that the Protestant question comes forward: “Why do we need someone else to speak to God for us? Isn’t Christ’s prayer enough?”

Of course, if prayer is just talk, then surely Christ’s words would be sufficient. But this oversimplification of prayer fails to do justice to Christ’s own prayer (as well as that of the saints). The intercession of the saints is their communion and participation in the life of Christ. By His life they live and the very character of that life is a communion with God. Rightly understood – that communion is prayer itself. When we express our own communion with the saints through asking their prayers we are giving verbal expression to what is already an ontological reality. As we are in communion with Christ so we are in communion with the saints. The Church cannot be other than the Church.

There may be those who reject the “intercession of the saints” (particularly as caricatured by inadequate understandings of prayer), but if they are truly in the communion of the Church then the intercession of the saints is inherently part of that communion. There is no Church that is not also the communion of the saints.

Our salvation is participation in the life of Christ. It is our healing, our forgiveness, our resurrection and our peace. Prayer is the sound of salvation – even in a wordless state.

Our reluctance to pray (let us be honest) is a manifestation of the primordial sin. It is not the time or effort we avoid – but communion with God that causes us to recoil. It is the hardness of our heart that avoids participation in the heart of God. But it is also His mercy that continues to call us to the life of prayer despite our selfish rebuff.

Coming out, He went to the Mount of Olives, as He was accustomed, and His disciples also followed Him. When He came to the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Luke 22:39-46).

 

“A Sword Will Pierce Your Soul”

November 11, 2010

The Mother of God, while bringing the Christ child to the temple, was greeted by an elderly man, the “just and devout man,” Simeon. Taking the child into his arms he spoke the well-known prophetic words of the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace….” He spoke as well of the child’s future, with dark tones that hinted at the suffering he would endure. He turned as well to the young Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” This inner suffering of the Mother of God, a mystical communion in the suffering of her Son, is, I believe, an unavoidable communion for all who would enter the Kingdom of God.

Human beings dislike suffering and in our modern age have directed much time and money to reduce and eliminate it. It is well and good to care for one another and to use God’s world and the gifts of healing that it affords. But there is no elimination of suffering – it remains an integral part of life.

The crucifixion of Christ and His death on the Cross are not removed from His proclamation of the Kingdom of God – the Cross is an inherent and integral part of the encounter of the Kingdom with the broken and fallen world in which we live. St. John’s gospel speaks of Christ’s crucifixion as His “glorification.” In the same manner, Christians are commanded by Christ to “take up your cross and follow me.” There is no description of the Christian life consistent with the gospels that does not contain a cross.

In many ways, Christ’s ministry can be described as a continual confrontation with the suffering world. In sending out the Twelve, he charged them:

…as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give (Matt. 10:7-8).

The preaching of the Kingdom is here described as synonymous with these encounters with brokenness, disease and bondage. In answer to inquiries from John the Baptist, Christ describes His ministry in terms that are unmistakeable in their proclamation of His messiahship:

Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matt. 11:4-5).

Our daily lives are not commonly marked by our victorious prayer in the face of suffering. Often, the sick remain sick, the blind remain blind, lepers remain lepers, the deaf remain deaf and the dead remain dead. Needless to say that the poor remain with us always. But such encounters and spiritual weakness in our lives are not to be excused by consigning the blind, the lepers, the deaf and the dead to the “stuff of life” – as inevitable and unavoidable parts of the natural order. In much of modernity such a consignment is not only seen as “natural” – the Kingdom itself is consigned to the “supernatural” and postponed to some later date at the end of history. Those who accuse Christians of believing in “pie in the sky, by and by,” are speaking of this displaced and postponed Kingdom – which is decidedly not the gospel of Christ.

The inauguration of the Kingdom of God – announced in the preaching of Christ – is the confrontation between heaven and earth. It is not a preaching of a Second Storey to which we may all someday go when we die – it is a frontal assault on a world which sought to declare itself as secular territory – uninhabited by God. This proclamation does not cease with the Cross and Ressurection – it is Christ’s commission to His disciples – the very life of the Church.

But the character of this proclamation continues to hold the promise that “a sword will pierce your own soul also.” St. Paul describes his hope in the faith, praying that he might have:

the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him [Christ], and the power of his resurrection, and the communion of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:9-11).

Nor does the great apostle see this as his own peculiar desire. At the conclusion of his expression of hope he encourages his readers to take on the same goal:

Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. (Philippians 3:15).

The Mother of God knew the communion of Christ’s sufferings at the Cross – a sword pierced her own soul. Her communion in the sufferings of Christ certainly included her grief as His mother, but far more as well. How does the grief of every mother not have some participation in the sword which pierced Mary’s soul? The grief of Mary, sanctified by its communion with the suffering of Christ, sanctifies the grief of all mothers in the same manner. It does not take away the grief, but it makes possible a transformation in which our grief is no longer the “stuff of this world,” but a communion in the Kingdom of God.

The commandment to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons” remains. St. Paul certainly fulfilled this commandment according to the measure of his faith. In our own life of faith such dramatic encounters may be present as well (according to the measure of faith), but even without such encounters we must refuse to cede territory to the adversary (including the disguise of neutrality in the secular account of life). The inauguration of the Kingdom of God includes Christ’s descent into Hades. There nowhere that is off-limits to Christ’s Kingdom.

Our encounter with suffering, whether in ourselves or in others, is also a place of the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not its cause, but its hope and redemption. Thus we can obey the commandment:

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…(Ephesians 5:17-20).

It is doubtless the case that in our thanksgiving a sword may often pierce our own soul – but that, too, is a communion with Christ. In Christ it is also a communion with Mary and with all the saints who have taken up their crosses in obedience to Christ. Our souls, pierced by such a sword, groans together with all creation, awaiting the final triumph of the Kingdom. Our thanksgiving is an act of Eucharist (eucharistia=thanksgiving), a transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. It is the fulfillment of the priesthood of all believers.

Such a life is not a freedom from suffering, but a communion in the sufferings of Christ that we might know the power of His resurrection.

Glory to God for all things!

Whom God Would Have Us Be

October 28, 2010

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being, He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World.

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Perhaps the greatest single failure in the Christian life is the refusal to give thanks. Thanks that is dependent upon success or the fulfillment and pleasure of our own will is indeed thanksgiving – but is weak indeed. It is easy to give thanks for our pleasures and self-satisfactions (though even then we often forget to give thanks).

All too often in our relationship with God and others, thanksgiving is purely reciprocal: we offer thanks as though it were a token payment for that which we have received. As such, it may represent little more than a happy, greedy heart. It falls far short of the heart of thanksgiving (Eucharist) itself. The heart of true thanksgiving is not a payment for services rendered, but an existential expression of our love for God as the Lord and Giver of Life.

This fundamental attitude marks the relationship of Christ and the Father. He is always and eternally giving thanks to the Father. It is also the right and truly “whole” expression of what it is to be human in the face of God. We find ourselves beset with temptation, sickness and oppression of every sort – including the burden of our own failure and sinfulness. But true knowledge of God yields thanks despite all other temptations and trials. It is the sound of creation giving praise and thanksgiving to its Creator. Nothing is more fundamental nor more essential to the right-living of the human heart.

In the face of many circumstances that surround and crush us – thanksgiving to God can seem absurd. However, such absurdity is the voice of love that refuses to grant failure and oppression a greater place in our life than God Himself.

He is our God – and we praise Him. Let His enemies be scattered!

Thanksgiving, almost above all else, transforms us into the image of Christ – who Himself is the true Eucharist of all creation. To give thanks to God is inherently to unite ourselves with Christ and the true voice of creation.

It is truly meet and right…

Silent Sentinels

September 28, 2010

On October 1, the Church will celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. Icons of this feast portray the Mother of God extending her veil over the whole Church – a graphic presentation of her prayers and maternal love. A similar love and prayer belongs to the saints of heaven, who stand as “a great cloud of witnesses,” urging the Church forward and always surrounding us with their prayer. The small reflection below concerns the saints who live among us on earth – almost unanimously unknown. It should be remember that Sodom and Gomorrah would have been spared had only 10 righteous men be found. As it was, the prayers of the righteous Abraham were not without effect. His kinsman, Lot, and family were delivered from that destruction at the hands of angels. It may be that none of us who read this post are among the “silent sentinels” whom I describe. But we can and must join our prayers with theirs (and with the hosts of heaven) as a veil of protection in a world that often seeks its own destruction. May God make is fervent in prayer on behalf of all and for all.

Like many, I recall my highschool years somewhat vividly. Our school was of moderate size with a personal history for most students that increased its impact. It opened in 1965 with grades 7 through 12, among the earliest accomodations in our county to the “baby boom” phenomenon. Existing schools simply could not handle the growing mass of young people. By the time I reached 9th grade, plans were made and shortly implemented that placed students under the ninth grade into a middle school. But by my last year, our class consisted of students who had been together for six years, some longer than that. And so it was that we knew one another. For good or ill, we knew one another. I recall in particular a student who came to our class somewhat late – probably around the tenth grade. What was striking was not that he was the best student (though he was among the best), nor that he was a great athlete, though he made a contribution, nor that he was necessarily a “hit” with the girls, though I recall him as the sort of guy who usually had a date to school dances.

This young man had a different distinction: he was good. Or if it is improper to call another man good (in light of Christ’s teaching in Luke 18:19) then I will have to say of him that he was kind. He was not only a kind young man, but kindness towards others seemed to matter to him. Thus he was intentionally kind. I was many times the recipient of his kindness – never hearing a mean or demeaning comment from him. This was a person who was never the source of a bad day for me.

Time has moved on and I now live away from my home town. I do not know the stories of my fellow students to a large degree. I married someone “from the outside” and have a life that rarely brings me into contact with that part of my past. But I have often wondered about the kindness of such a young man and what became of him.

I use this memory as a way of thinking about the phenomenon of saints. I do not know that my friend’s kindness approached that category – but it is a reminder to me that we are not all alike. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we meet those who are singular in their kindness, their goodness, their generosity, their compassion, and the presence of the good God is made somewhat tangible.

I recently watched a movie on the modern saint Nikolai of Zicha. His life spanned both World Wars and included a time in America, part of which was spent as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s seminary in Pennsylvania. What was most striking about him was the recognition by others around him from a fairly early stage in his life, that this was no ordinary man. At numerous points in his life people who were no strangers to political power or wealth, described him as the most extraordinary man of their acquaintance. He was compared to the prophets of the Old Testament. In one case he was considered the equal of an army. Kings sought his advice, which was not noted for political brilliance but for goodness. His was the voice of God to many in his generation, including those who seemed to have the “power” of God in their ability to make life and death decisions.

In a famous prayer from his Prayers by the Lake, he wrote:

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.

Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.

They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.

They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.

They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.

They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord, Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.

Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.

Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.

Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.

Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.

Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.

Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitter against me:

so that my fleeing to You may have no return;

so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;

so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;

so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins, arrogance and anger;

so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;

ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.

One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.

It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and enemies.

A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.

For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.

Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

He was imprisoned in Dachau by the Nazis and persecuted by the communists after their rise to power in post-war Serbia. Thus he finished his years in America, a saint who had not sought out our company, but was nonetheless a gift to us of a kind God.

I believe that without the presence of saints the world could not continue to exist. They cannot be seen as a great political force, but I believe that the goodness that dwells within them and the kindness that flows from them, by God’s grace, hold back the approaching darkness that will come before the Light of God sweeps all darkness aside.

Like my childhood friend, I cannot explain their presence or their character without some sort of reference beyond environment. Without the hand of God, such men and women simply could not exist. But they do. In our places of work, sometimes in our families, in the cities in which we dwell, there is a quiet presence that we cannot account for. Our sociology and socio-biology easily explain the sad presence of evil in our midst. Evil disappoints and saddens us but it does not present us with a conundrum.

But this other presence – to be found even at an early age – transcends our science. Not often recognized to the extent of Bishop Nikolai, these silent sentinels are nonetheless there. I do not know even that they are all Orthodox. God’s purpose needs more of them than He has of us. Their presence in an office can make an unbearable place of work into something bearable – even at times pleasant. I have no way to estimate their number or to surmise their universality, other than to suspect that they are everywhere. And I believe that they are where they are, because God placed them there and that they are where they are for our salvation. More than saints, they are like guardian angels in our social fabric. Without them, the whole world would unravel.

Fellowship and the Tower of Babel

August 22, 2010

I had an occasion last week to be confronted by a Protestant fundamentalist “street preacher.” Wearing a cassock and a cross in public clearly identifies me as a priest (though in this part of the world most people know nothing of Orthodox priests). It also makes you a target for some who want to have arguments about religion. Thus, last week, while doing work on the local university campus, I was approached twice by different “preachers.” The first conversation was relatively short and generally non-confrontational.

My second encounter was less pleasant. The gentleman who approached me wanted an argument and tried his best to draw me into such a conversation. He eventually left in frustration. However, one of his questions has stayed with me. He asked, “What do you think salvation is?” I answered, “Salvation is union with Christ.” He had obviously never heard that answer and wasn’t sure what to say in return (he changed the subject). I realized on reflection that he had no idea what I meant – which brought another thought to mind: how can you have a conversation about faith when the most basic vocabulary is riddled with contradictions? The words are the same (salvation, Baptism, Church, etc.) but the meanings are utterly different. We both spoke English, but the two of us did not share a common language.

There is a relatively small number of words that come up repeatedly in my writings: mystery, union, communion, participation, icon, iconic, etc. It is not so much that my vocabulary is greatly restricted – rather our common vocabulary is restricted. Some words are deeply essential in sharing the Orthodox life. Unless such words are understood, no conversation can take place. The ancient Greeks used the word Barbaros (“barbarian”) for those who did not speak Greek. The etymology of the word was simple: those who spoke a foreign (non-Greek) language sounded as though they were saying, “Bar, bar, bar, bar, etc.” Those with whom no language is shared are often the most foreign to us. I have also found it to be true that even when I do not share a common language with someone, if I share a common faith, they are no longer foreign – conversation takes place at a deeper level. I have served in liturgies in which there were at least three languages present in the altar and not mutually understood – and yet, the liturgy went smoothly despite the shifting languages. There was the common language of priesthood and liturgy – in many ways, an experience of Pentecost.

I ask patience on the part of my readers if my blog postings occasionally seem repetitive. Many things have to be spoken and repeated for understanding to take place (thus comments are of very great value). It is not common language we seek in the end – but a common God – the good God who loves mankind.

The following is an article on a key word – a word that would have changed the conversation last week that failed. The Tower of Babel is much closer than we think.

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Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The creation of abstract nouns from adjectives (common in Greek thought) was a critical component in the rise of philosophy within that culture.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two discrete individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

To Walk in the Light

August 21, 2010

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

For a variety of reasons, my thoughts have been drawn increasingly to the imagery within Scripture of darkness and light. It is powerful imagery that, for me, echoes the inner, existential experience of the Christian life. To walk in the light is to walk in communion with God (in Whom there is no darkness at all). But I find that a great deal of human existence is spent in darkness.

Lies are darkness. Fear is darkness. Anxiety is darkness. Hatred and enmity are darkness. Bitterness and anger are darkness. Enslavement to the passions is darkness. All of these things, or things very similar, are a common part of the human experience. Their effect is the opposite of the light. To walk in darkness is to break communion with one another and to ourselves estranged from God as well.

Someone recently asked me, “What makes a good confession?” Of course, there is no one simple answer to the question. The answer I offered came from my own experience: “Whenever I am able to bring the darkness of my heart into the light of God’s good favor – that is a good confession.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

The area of Tennessee in which I live is riddled with caves and caverns. Some of them have been turned into tourist attractions. Years back, I took my family on a visit to one of the larger caves. It was well-fitted for tourists – with handrails and other safety measures. A common part of the tour took place in one of the deeps rooms of the cave. When everyone was safely seated (on benches that had placed in the room) – all electric lighting was extinguished. We remained in this state for a number of minutes. The experience is one that generally does not come to us on the surface of the planet. There was a total absence of light. It becomes impossible to see anything, regardless of distance. There was simply no light.

The experience is frightening to many, and was certainly unnerving to me. I felt that for the first time I understood “darkness,” and I disliked the experience in the extreme.

The human life is a journey – either towards darkness or towards light. I do not think I have ever met anyone whom I would describe as in “total darkness” – there are minor sources of light in even very darkened lives. I do not think I have ever met anyone whom I would describe as in “total light” – though I have met some in whom the light of Christ so shone, that I was not aware of darkness.

We are created to walk in the light. The “robe of righteousness” about which we sing at Baptism, is the righteousness of Christ – some of the fathers describe this as a “garment of light.” Moses was clothed in such light when he came down from Mount Sinai.

It is an image, as I’ve noted, that has held my attention for some time now. More than an image – the light is the uncreated light of God.

I pray daily for Christ to lift the darkness to pierce through my blindness and to grant grace for my heart to embrace the light. I want communion with others and the blood of Jesus to cleanse me of all sin.

O, Gladsome Light!

Giving and Receiving

August 9, 2010

In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each man, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as the priest of his whole life – to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering and a hymn of glory.

Paul Evdokimov in Woman and the Salvation of the World

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Abba Zosimas used to say: “We have lost our sense of balance.”

Reflections, XI, e.

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There is a modern translation of the Beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is rendered, “Blessed are they who know their need of God…”  It is an insightful rendering even though it is more paraphrase than translation. People often perceive themselves as “needy,” though not always in need of God. The “poverty of spirit” that is most often experienced is little more than an ache generated in the ego (our imaginary self) which always feels threatened in one way or another.

The very nature of the passions, in their distorted shape, is that we become passive – we are acted upon and feel helpless or addicted. I am often struck in conversations with others about various spiritual problems by our general passivity in life. The sin which so deeply infects us is less a matter of the will (with a considered choice being made) than it is a passive reaction. Most anger, for instance, is not a decision but a reaction, flowing from a distorted passion within us. Thus we say such things as, “You made me angry.”  In this manner we experience life as out of control and ourselves as victims.

It is only to be expected that such an experience awakens a desire within us to control the things around us – but it is also the case that most things around us cannot be controlled. And so we sin in yet another misguided attempt to save the ego.

Passivity is never healed passively – there have to positive actions within us to overcome the downward spiral of the passions. We were not created to be passive.

In the Biblical account, man and woman are set in a garden and given everything they need – with the single prohibition regarding one kind of fruit. Thus they were not merely passive recipients of everything in the world – they were also required to actively avoid one thing.

The heart of that Edenic life is summed up in the action of priesthood. Man receives from God and he actively returns to God all that he receives, with thanksgiving. In the Church, this is the action of the Eucharist. But it is also to be the action of everyone at all times. The activity of returning everything to God in thanksgiving is the essence of our communion with God.

The Elder Zacharias of Essex has described worship as a constant action of exchange. God gives to us and we give back to God. What we receive is obviously infinitely more than we can return. We receive the very life of God and in turn offer the life of man.

But this essential action is the opposite of passivity. All that we have is a gift from God – but a gift received without active thanksgiving quickly becomes distorted. Only those things which are given back with thanksgiving have a chance of taking their proper form and role in our lives.

St. Paul quotes Christ as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). This is more than a statement of morally superior action – it is a description of life-creating action. To give is more blessed because it is for this that we were created.

What shall we render to the Lord?